Councilman Joel Cruz, Jr. is a Hartford native and graduate of Hartford High School. He is running for Mayor, declaring that his dream is to unite the city – to create “One Hartford". Cruz, 34, was appointed to the Town Council in August 2012 to fill the seat of Luis Cotto, who had departed for Cambridge, Mass. Cruz is serving out the remainder of Cotto's term.
Cruz currently works for Catholic Charities as Family Center Director. He served eight years in the U.S. Marine Corps, has served on the Hartford Hospital Pastoral Services Advisory Committee, the Board of Directors for the African Caribbean American Parents of Children with Disabilities as vice-chair (AFCAMP), the Board of Directors for the Connecticut Center for a New Economy, and presently serves on the Charter Oak Health Center board of directors.
Councilman Cruz was interviewed by HYPEster Julia Winer for HYPE’s public office blog series. The series focuses on interviewing public officials from different towns where HYPE members have an interest in running for public office. Our goal is to provide assistance by offering someone for members to reach out to with questions.
What made you want to run for mayor?
Councilman Cruz is passionate about Hartford. Born and raised in the city, his large family extends into all parts of the community. Cruz’s father was diagnosed with prostate cancer at the age of 54. His father lost his job as a result of his lengthy treatment, and the family struggled to pay for the services that his father needed. Soon thereafter, Cruz’s best friend was shot and killed in Hartford. Having served in the military for eight years, Cruz became disillusioned by a system that he felt did not meet the needs of his family or the community. He was encouraged to run for office by former Councilman Luis Cotto. “He told me to turn my negative energy into a positive”, said Cruz. Cotto took Cruz under his wing and taught him about politics. He began introducing him to people who could help him with his campaign. When Cotto vacated his seat on the Town Council in 2012 to move to the Greater Boston area, Cruz, who was first-runner-up in the 2011 election, was unanimously voted onto the Council.
Today, Cruz is running for Mayor of Hartford. He is running to inspire others to participate. He wants more young people to vote and to recognize that they can run for office themselves. He says the hardest part about running is that he will be forced to vacate his seat on the Town Council, because the elections run concurrently.
What do you think potential candidates should know about running a campaign before deciding to run for office?
Councilman Cruz says that a common mistake that new candidates make is assuming that older or former politicians have nothing to offer them. He says it is extremely important to treat everyone with respect and build one-to-one relationships with all kinds of people. He says that many experienced politicians have a great depth of wisdom that often gets overlooked, but he says this is what makes a partnership with them uniquely powerful. “They bring the wisdom, you bring the energy, and together you can accomplish great things,” explained Cruz.
Running as an independent, Cruz acknowledges that that his campaign faces many obstacles. In high-profile races like the mayoral race in Hartford, Cruz says that the race isn’t about character; it is about which “team” you are on. It can be challenging to run for election outside of the republican or democratic parties, because members of both are strongly committed to supporting their party’s nominee. Cruz says that it can be challenging to convince people to consider the potential value of other candidates.
Cruz says that you can never take it personally. He advises that there will be many people who don’t agree with you or who intentionally try to get you upset, and then they will say, “that’s politics”. But Councilman Cruz disagrees. He says that he prioritizes maintaining control over his image and campaign by not engaging in the negativity. He is able to do this by remaining focused on his goals and on why he chose to run for office: to serve the people of Hartford. “That’s why it is called ‘public office’,” he says. “It isn’t your office, it belongs to the people of Hartford, and it belongs that way".
Can you talk about how you developed the messaging and a visual identity for your campaign?
Cruz knew that in order to be successful, he would need a campaign that was innovative and that felt authentic to his local community. Unlike most candidates, Councilman Cruz intentionally built a cabinet without experienced campaigners, because he didn’t want his campaign to look “typical”. Membership on his cabinet includes people with different experiences and backgrounds, and features many young people, including the student from CCSU who came up with the bow tie image that has become iconic of Cruz’s campaign. Cruz explained that the bow tie is colored purple to symbolize how his campaign is a blended alternative to the democratic (blue) and republican (red) parties. He attends almost all community and campaign events sporting the purple bow tie, and he feels that this has made him appear more approachable to community members.
Cruz asked his cabinet to create branding and messaging for the campaign that would feel particularly authentic to the people of Hartford. He said that this is especially important when you are planning a campaign, because you want your messaging to show that you are people-focused. “One of the reasons that I am running is because I don’t have all the answers,” explained Cruz. “But I think that together we will build a better community.” Cruz encourages new candidates, particularly those who are running as an independent, to pursue out-of-the box, innovative ideas. He says these activities cause people to remember and talk about you and your campaign.
How have you leveraged social media as part of your campaign? What have you found to be effective that you would recommend to others?
As an independent candidate, Councilman Cruz has found that traditional news media, such as television and newspapers are not effective for him; they tend to focus exclusively on the nominees from the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. However, he says that social media has given him an advantage, because it allows him to take his campaign with him, wherever he goes in the community. He has more followers on social media than any other candidate, and most of his followers live in Hartford. Cruz runs his social media accounts himself, so that he can listen and respond to people’s concerns. He says that this has allowed him to stay connected and relevant, and has helped to further emphasize the authenticity of his campaign to community members.
What have you found to be the most important actions that you took or activities that you engaged in during the years leading up to your campaign that laid the foundation for you to be able to run for office?
Councilman Cruz recommends that anyone interested in running for office should find a mentor and begin to build a relationship with, someone who you can trust to give you honest advice. For Cruz, former Hartford Mayor, Thirman Milner offered mentorship and a shared vision for Hartford. Milner, the first African American mayor of Hartford, also helped him to build relationships with some of Hartford’s key political influences.
Cruz also recommends that anyone interested in running for office begin attending community events and building relationships with people in every neighborhood. “One advantage that I have in this race is that I have always been involved in the community. I have attended community events my whole life, with my family and friends; I don’t want to be the guy who just signs up to go to an event because I’m running.” We are pleased to see active participation in local government and highlight the young professionals pursuing and/or holding these elected positions. Please note that HYPE can not endorse any candidate represented in the blog series or otherwise.
Check out the other candidate interviews with Luke Bronin and Ted Cannon.